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Leaving no one behind: Humanitarian effectiveness in the age of the Sustainable Development Goals

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As of July 2015, an estimated 114 million people in assessed countries were in need of humanitarian assistance, compared to 40 million just over ten years ago.1 Needs are not only growing, but their drivers and time horizons have also changed: most people in crisis live in contexts of fragility, where existing vulnerabilities due to causes like poverty, food insecurity and exclusion are compounded by conflict and violence, intensifying natural disasters, and unplanned urbanization. The international humanitarian system2 was set up to address exceptional circumstances, but for people in these environments, crises and insecurity are the norm. Cycles of conflict and disasters are displacing millions, leaving people vulnerable and in need of humanitarian action for decades, and in some cases, for generations.

Alongside these challenges are positive trends: local, national, regional and international capacity to prepare for and manage crises continues to grow. Actors from all backgrounds are increasingly taking initiative, joining forces, and getting more organized to address growing needs, beginning with affected people themselves. The international humanitarian system also continues to play a fundamental role in providing assistance and protection in times of conflict, when local systems are depleted by crisis, and where resources or technical knowledge are insufficient.

International actors have also made significant progress in strengthening humanitarian coordination, professionalizing and establishing standards for delivery, managing crisis risk, building resilience and promoting accountability to affected people.

Despite these gains at all levels, the complexity and volume of crises means that many people still do not receive the assistance and protection they need, while others may be trapped in a humanitarian holding pattern that offers no clear path to better their circumstances. Conflict continues to drive the bulk of humanitarian action, but those responding to chronic vulnerability, climate-driven shocks, rapid urbanization, and a host of other hazards now coexist with conflict-driven crises in a complex and interconnected picture. Protracted crises are the norm, and humanitarian actors have taken on a wider range of roles: addressing prolonged displacement; filling gaps in social safety nets; promote preparedness; coping with the changing nature of violence and new hazards; and facing urbanization and climate-driven crises. In this environment, clarifying effectiveness requires an understanding of the expectations against which humanitarian assistance and protection are now measured.

This study echoes the view that progress in addressing these challenges can be triggered, in part, by the adoption of a shared understanding of what humanitarian effectiveness means in today’s world, and through collective efforts to incentivize and measure progress toward achieving it.

The World Humanitarian Summit (WHS) marks a rare opportunity to advance an agenda around this kind of shared understanding. The Sustainable Development Agenda, which has just been adopted, provides another opportunity: a global results framework that must benefit everyone, regardless of circumstance. In order to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the most vulnerable people, including those in crisis, must be a particular priority. For humanitarians to contribute to that vision, meeting basic needs in crisis will remain critical, but it is no longer enough. The 2030 Agenda calls on humanitarians locally, nationally, and internationally to work differently with one another and with counterparts in development, peace operations, climate change, and gender equality to move people out of crisis: reducing vulnerability, doubling down on risk management, and tackling root causes of crises and conflict.

The 2030 Agenda includes a vision for global solidarity with people in fragile environments, a renewed commitment to resolve or prevent conflict and the recognition of the important role of migrants, internally displaced people, and refugees in achieving development goals. By recognizing that many of the drivers of humanitarian crises “threaten to reverse much of the development progress made in recent decades,” the Agenda opens a formal bridge to greater cooperation that will “leave no one behind.”

In light of these factors, this study highlights 12 of the elements that are critical to effective humanitarian assistance and protection, and describes five overarching shifts in mind-set and approach that can contribute to improvements in supporting people in crisis, as well as moving people out of crisis.

The tools and approaches needed to deliver effective humanitarian action differ based on a number of factors, but the most prominent one is context. In the aftermath of rapid-onset, climate-related disaster, for example, the emphasis may be on providing rapid, quality aid where the crisis has overwhelmed existing capacity to cope. It could also mean supporting the response of actors such as national military or local businesses, in providing the immediate logistics support to enable others to save more lives. In a conflict environment, where some actors may be compromised by or implicated in fighting, international humanitarian engagement plays a unique role in delivery, protection, and advocacy. In still other contexts, such as situations of chronic vulnerability, effectiveness has a different dimension, requiring collaboration beyond the humanitarian community, away from cycles of short-term delivery and toward a sustainable framework of human rights and social protection.

While every context is different, as we reflect on what it means to be effective, it can help to consider the profile of a person most commonly facing humanitarian needs. Based on today’s humanitarian landscape, we now know that this person is likely to be a woman. She and her children are likely to have fled their home, and to be living without the right to work or schooling, and without basic services like water and health care. She is likely to be fleeing from or living in conflict, where she faces an increased risk of violence in her home and in the community around her.

She and her family are more likely to live in these circumstances of displacement, insecurity and chronic vulnerability for more than a decade,4 meeting their needs through community networks, diaspora support, and, in some cases, through actors in the international humanitarian aid system. When aid is available, it may not offer what is most important to her and her family, such as education for her children, safe housing or a source of livelihood. As years pass with limited improvement in her prospects, the systems designed to protect her and her family, and to meet their needs, are unlikely to transform her circumstances. This study considers how humanitarian action can contribute to more effective results for this woman and others in crisis.

The study is based on extensive consultation with a range of stakeholders to understand whether affected people feel their needs are being met, who is meeting them, and what more can be done to move people out of crisis (see page 12 for details on the research approach). The findings are based on a 1,600-person global survey, six country visits that included hundreds of interviews, and other consultations.

The study begins with a description of the Humanitarian Landscape, which details the global trends that shape humanitarian needs, risks, and expectations for response. It then situates the study in context of concurrent global change agendas and recent trends in the dialogue on humanitarian effectiveness by exploring the question, “Why effectiveness, why now?” The Findings, which summarize what we heard in the course of the study, are organized around 12 elements of effectiveness, which have been grouped into three tiers, as follows:


  • Relevant

  • Timely

  • Accountable

RESULTS: these elements describe the desired results for crisis affected people


  • Complementary

  • Connected

  • Coherent

  • Nimble

PRACTICE: these elements describe the desired behaviour and approach for any actor involved in achieving results for crisis-affected people


  • Respect for Principles

  • Leadership

  • Resources

  • Information and Evidence

  • Governance

ENABLERs: These are some of the essential enablers that must be part of the operating environment in order to achieve results for crisis-affected people.

As noted above, any model for effectiveness should be applied and evaluated in context: some elements of effectiveness will naturally be more important and feasible in some contexts, while others make take precedence or add more value in others. This is not a framework solely for the United Nations (UN) or international actors, but should contribute to the effort to advance effectiveness by all actors contributing to humanitarian action.

The study summarizes the proposed changes in the “How do we get there” section, presenting five overarching shifts in mindset and practice that will contribute to greater humanitarian effectiveness. These shifts also contribute to advancing areas of shared interests with change agendas such as the Sustainable Development Agenda and those for peacebuilding, climate change, and gender equality. The proposed shifts have strong implications for international humanitarian actors and donors as well as governments, national civil society organizations, and others contributing to humanitarian action such as private sector actors, militaries, and diaspora communities. Achieving them will require a commitment, among humanitarian actors and other key stakeholders, to examine incentive structures and overcome persistent barriers to ensure their advancement.

Those shifts are as follows:

  • Reinforce, don’t replace existing capacities and coping strategies
    International humanitarian actors must respond to needs quickly, with relevant responses, and at the necessary scale. But their aim should always be to enable and empower national actors and institutions, not to substitute for them. In order to reinforce the self-reliance of affected people and undertake targeted capacity development, humanitarian actors must have a strong understanding of the operating context, ideally before a crisis happens, and be informed by local actors and development partners with an established presence and network. These efforts should include supporting national and local actors and institutions through appropriate political engagement, partnerships, and financial investment to protect civilians, manage risk, guide response and reduce vulnerability. The primacy of national and local institutions cannot come at the expense of people themselves: where national and local actors undermine or compromise the rights and safety of crisis-affected people, international actors should also uphold and reinforce the rights of affected people, stressing the primary responsibilities of States and parties to conflict under relevant international law and other instruments.

  • Enter with an Exit: collaborate to reduce and end humanitarian need
    Acknowledging that humanitarian crises are neither short-lived nor isolated, humanitarian actors must work more closely with others to set context-specific targets for reducing need and improving the prospects of crisis-affected people to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals. This must include concrete partnerships with governments, development and peacebuilding communities, and other relevant actors in order to: identify shared interests and clarify roles in reducing the risk of chronic shocks, strengthen social protection measures, prevent prolonged displacement, and promote sustainable solutions for internally displaced people and refugees. The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development provides a number of useful commitments to support this aim, including support for displaced people to return to a path to dignity and safety. Planning should employ multi-year compacts that bring together relevant actors at the national and regional levels to clarify how they will contribute to specific, dynamic benchmarks and outcome targets against which to measure progress.

  • Leverage comparative advantage: strengthen connectivity and strategic leadership
    Coordination platforms, tools, and financing models should reflect the diversity of actors meeting humanitarian needs and the contexts in which crises happen. This requires: building stronger connections between national and international actors and between humanitarian and non-humanitarians. These coordination structures should be designed ahead of crises, particularly in areas at high risk, aiming to recognize the range of capacities needed. Strategic leadership should be strongly supported, both among governments and international actors: reinforcing obligations, calling for accountability, and emphasizing discipline. Leadership should identify and promote concrete outcomes and specific positive results for crisis-affected people, facilitating collaboration that cuts across traditional silos.

  • See the whole picture: 360-degrees of risks and needs
    To keep needs at the center of humanitarian action, all actors require consistent definition of humanitarian need and frequent analysis of its drivers, including disaggregation for the unique needs of people within the affected population. Open and safe data will be critical to advancing this, with the maximum level of sharing and access encouraged, balanced with the highest degree of protection for privacy and safety of affected people. In addition, responses to crises, whether driven by conflict or natural disasters, are consistently more effective when the groundwork is in place ahead of time to prevent crises or attenuate their impact and prepare for residual risks, based on an analysis of known risks and capacities, and with investments in preparedness where risk of disasters is greatest.

  • Measure shared results for collective accountability
    Collective accountability should be promoted by all actors leading and delivering on humanitarian action, including governments, international actors, donors, national actors and others. Shared benchmarks for success will mean bringing together a range of actors based on shared interests and comparative advantage in order to achieve real results for affected people. Common feedback mechanisms and aggregated data on needs and priorities of affected people will be critical enablers of this, linked to decision-making processes on financing, planning and operations.
    Building on tools like the IASC’s Commitments on Accountability to Affected People, and the Core Humanitarian Standard on Quality and Accountability, benchmarks should be linked to regularly collected and analysed feedback from affected people, with adjustments made to both inputs and targets as a result of that feedback. This process will require each actor to deliver on commitments in a predictable manner, based on a clear contribution to broader outcomes, with flexible tools and structures to adapt to feedback.

Given the urgency of undertaking these shifts deliberately, actors responsible for making them happen must be held accountable. The study proposes that a global accountability framework be formulated to track progress on improving specific aspects of humanitarian effectiveness, used to inform interagency and intergovernmental processes as well as operational and policy options in crises. As a contribution to this accountability framework, the study proposes a set of “guiding principles” that highlight the main changes in relation to the study’s 12 elements of effectiveness. These are meant as a starting point for discussion, not as a definitive list. Once adopted, such a framework would serve as the basis for periodic progress reviews to highlight successes and best practice, barriers to progress, and areas of new or on-going concern that require adaptation or change in course. It would aim to build on the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development - Development Assistance Committee (OECD-DAC) criteria and the Core Humanitarian Standard on Quality and Accountability (CHS), and other relevant frameworks.

What sets this study’s effectiveness elements apart from many others is the inclusion of the “enablers.” In many crisis environments, the weaknesses or gaps in enablers such as governance and respect for principles are the very reason for a humanitarian crisis. In some contexts, however, there is significant progress that can be made on addressing some of them, and analysing these factors often forms the basis of the humanitarian advocacy agenda to tackle persistent challenges. Some of them, such as leadership and resources, will be required in any environment and should be included in the full picture of effectiveness. The enablers also represent some of the connecting points with other agendas including human rights, peace and security, and development. The study does not suggest that these enablers must be perfectly intact to realize an effective result, but it does recognize that a forward-looking agenda must continue to tackle these systemic considerations.

UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs
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